45 years after the Land O’ Lakes Statement, Catholic education is gaining strength . . .
The 1960s was a time of great tumult in the United States — one that had devastating effects on the country’s institutions and mores.
Its ravages could be seen perhaps nowhere more clearly than on college campuses. Truth gave way to skepticism and relativism, and expressions such as “free love” and “question authority” became the catchphrases of student life.
Catholic colleges were not immune to these influences. Venerable institutions that for many scores of years had faithfully passed on the intellectual patrimony of the Church began to adopt the diluted curricula, methods, and aims of their secular counterparts. Not only was campus life at many of these institutions giving way to the permissiveness of the time, but a long-standing commitment to Catholic liberal education was quickly disappearing.
In 1967, against this backdrop, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, convened a group of prominent Catholic educators in Land O’Lakes, Wis. Their aim was to chart a new course for Catholic higher education in America, one that would resemble all too well that of their secular counterparts. The meeting resulted in a document entitled a Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University.
Hoping to garner the kind of reputation for academic excellence enjoyed by secular institutions of higher learning, the statement declared, “The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself” (my italics). Going even further, it stated that the Catholic university “should carry on a continual examination of all aspects and all activities of the Church and should objectively evaluate them.” In other words, where once the measure of the Catholic university was the Magisterium, now the Catholic university would not only be its own judge, but in an audacious upending of the tradition, it would also be the measure of the Church. Truly, this was a watershed moment for Catholic higher education in the United States.
Implicit in this declaration of autonomy was a deeply flawed understanding of freedom. Church teachings had for centuries been understood as a guide in the pursuit of truth, assisting those engaged in rigorous intellectual inquiry and bolstering their pursuit of knowledge about nature, man, and God. The Land O’Lakes Statement, however, asserted the opposite — that the truths of the faith were instead an impediment to legitimate academic inquiry.
This notion captured the attention of Thomas Aquinas College’s founders, themselves professors at this turbulent time, and it galvanized their desire to found a new institution. In 1969, they published what would become the college’s governing document. Entitled A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Education, it articulated an alternative view of the Catholic intellectual life, one that echoes Christ’s teachings that He “is the way, the truth, and the life” and that the “Truth shall set you free.” Thus reasserting fidelity to the teaching Church as its foundation, Thomas Aquinas College opened its doors in 1971.
In the years since, under the leadership of other courageous men and women, a number of additional faithful Catholic colleges have sprung up across the country. Moreover, some existing institutions have undertaken to re-establish their Catholic identity. On these campuses, Catholicism is not simply an addition to an otherwise secular project. It is at the heart of their endeavors. Together they are proving that fidelity to the teachings of the Church is no impediment to academic excellence.
Buttressing these efforts is Blessed John Paul II’s 1988 encyclical Fides et Ratio, which describes the complementary nature of faith and reason, “the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Ex Corde Ecclesiae, issued in 1990, elaborates on this theme. This apostolic constitution, in many ways a rebuttal to the Land O’Lakes Statement, articulates the nature and objectives of a Catholic university, stressing “fidelity to the Christian message” on the part of faculty members.
Despite the Church’s guidance, 45 years after the publication of the Land O’Lakes Statement, its false principle of “academic freedom” has become entrenched at many of our Catholic colleges and universities. Yet the new Catholic institutions that have the Church’s teachings at their heart are providing an antidote, not only for Catholic higher education, but for our culture. Having been well-formed intellectually, morally and spiritually, many of these institutions’ graduates are now teachers and professors themselves. They are committed to passing on the Church’s great intellectual tradition to young people at their alma maters, in seminaries and perhaps most importantly, at institutions that have yet to embrace the principles of Ex Corde. Our hopes for Catholic higher education — and for our country — lie with them.
Dr. Michael McLean is president of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., and a member of Legatus’ LA North/Ventura Chapter.